CHAPTER SIX 7364H. What Personal Injury and Defense Lawyers Should Know About SSI Insurance and SSD Claims

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1 CHAPTER SIX 7364H What Personal Injury and Defense Lawyers Should Know About SSI Insurance and SSD Claims 599

2 Course Summary This presentation explains the differences in the disability programs (Social Security Disability Insurance, which encompasses individual wage earner s benefits, auxiliary benefits, disabled adult child benefits, disabled widow s benefits and Supplemental Security Income,which is a federal welfare benefit for persons who are indigent and over 65 or disabled). Faculty: Sanjuanita Gonzalez,, Esq Jeffrey S. Lichtman, Esq. 600

3 What Every Attorney Needs to Know About Social Security Disability Insurance and SSI Claims 601

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5 WHAT EVERY ATTORNEY NEEDS TO KNOW ABOUT SOCIAL SECURITY DISABILITY INSURANCE AND SSI CLAIMS I. Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). The first thing that any attorney needs to understand is that the Social Security Administration is charged with administering two basic types of disability programs, Social Security Disability Insurance (typically referred to as SSD or SSDI and as DIB by persons working with and within SSA) and Supplemental Security Income (typically referred to as SSI). Benefits from the SSDI program come from the Social Security trust funds whereas SSI benefits come from funds in the federal government's general operating budget. While a spouse, minor children and disabled adult children of an insured wage earner are potentially eligible to receive Social Security benefits through a wage earner's earnings record and disabled children may be entitled to SSI benefits if the family financial situation is weak, these materials shall focus solely on the individual and his/her entitlement to benefits as this is intended to be more of a basic, introductory level presentation. A. Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) Social Security Disability Insurance is like any other insurance policy: to be eligible to receive a benefit under this policy of insurance, an individual must have paid a premium within a set time period. By working and paying taxes, an individual is buying long-term disability insurance with the United States government (as well as contributing to his/her Social Security retirement pension). In 2012, earnings of $1,130 buys a credit with the Social Security Administration. Accordingly, earnings of only $4,520 for the year 2012 buys the maximum of four credits/quarters of coverage. In 2010 and 2011, individuals received one credit for each $1,120 of earnings, up to the maximum of four credits per year. For 2009, individuals received one credit for each $1090 of earnings. A minimum of six credits is required to receive benefits based upon one s own earnings record regardless of an individual s age. As a general proposition, to be eligible to receive SSDI, an individual must be insured for SSDI. An individual over the age of 31 years needs to have worked for 10 years to have insured status at some point in time and to be currently insured, the individual needs to have worked in 5 of the past 10 years. Example 1: Jeffrey Lawyer began working and paying Social Security and other taxes at the age of 20 and is presently 45 years old. His earnings in every year of these 25 years have been high enough to purchase four Social Security credits per year. Accordingly, he is fully insured for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits (as well as for Retirement benefits). If he stops working on December 31, 2012 and does not return to work at any point in time thereafter, he will be insured for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits through December 31, 2017 (after which he will not have 20 credits in the last 40 quarters and thus will no longer be insured for SSDI). Example 2: Jeffrey Lawyer began working and paying Social Security and other taxes at levels high enough to purchase Social Security credits at the age of 20 and is presently 45 years old. He stopped working due to a series of injuries and restorative surgeries on December 31, The rehabilitative process took three years during which time he was unable to work. Jeffery returned 603

6 to work on January 1, 2008 and worked for one year. His date last insured for SSDI benefits is December 31, 2010 as the year of work in 2008 extends by one year the period in which he has had sufficient earnings so as to meet the 20 credits in the last 40 quarters rule. (See 20 CFR Sections through ). For more examples, please go to Social Security's website and look at FAQs. For determining earnings requirements for persons under the age of 31 years to be insured for SSDI, see this link: nder%2031%20years%20old B. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) SSI is federal welfare, plain and simple. To be eligible, an individual must be poor enough" to qualify for benefits. Individuals who are "poor enough" and over 65 years of age do not need to be disabled to receive SSI. However, the focus of this presentation is for individuals who are under 65 years of age and meet the financial eligibility criteria to receive SSI, and these persons must be disabled to qualify for benefits. While children with physical and/or mental disabilities can also qualify for SSI benefits if they and their families income and resources do not preclude receipt of benefits, children's cases are rather complicated, frequently not successful and are not being addressed in this presenter's materials. 1. To be financially eligible for SSI, a person must not have more than $2,000 in countable resources. A married couple must not have more than $3,000 in countable resources. In the SSA's own words: What is a resource in the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program? Resources are the things you own such as cash, real estate, personal belongings, bank accounts, stocks and bonds that you can use for your support. To be eligible for SSI a person must have $2,000 or less in countable resources. A married couple must have $3,000 or less in countable resources. If you own resources over the SSI limit, you may be able to get SSI benefits while trying to sell the resources. Not all of your resources count toward the SSI resource limit. For example: The home you live in and the land it's on do not count. Your personal effects and household goods do not count. Life insurance policies may not count, depending on their value. Your car usually does not count. Burial plots for you and members of your immediate family do not count. 604

7 Up to $1,500 in burial funds for you and up to $1,500 in burial funds for your spouse may not count. If you are blind or have a disability, some items may not count if you plan to use them to work or earn extra income. Source: 2. Financial eligibility for SSI is not only based upon "resources." Individual and household income is also a determinative factor in ascertaining financial eligibility for SSI. Assuming that the potential client and spouse (if applicable) do not have resources that would preclude eligibility for SSI, you need to know whether or not the individual and/or spouse have income from either work or other sources (pensions, state or private disability benefits, and workers compensation are the most common examples of unearned income). Please see the SSA document entitled "Update 2012" appended to these materials for detailed information about amounts of wages and unearned income that impact financial eligibility for SSI (as well as other information regarding Social Security retirement and disability benefits and Medicare health insurance benefits and premiums). C. Do Cases Involve SSDI and SSI? Yes. People often pursue both SSDI and SSI concurrently, and the SSA indeed does refer to these as "concurrent claims." If a wage earner's SSDI benefit amount is less than the maximum SSI benefit amount, $698 per month in 2012, the individual can receive also SSI so that the combined benefit amount totals up to $718 per month. D. Are Persons Who Are Not US Citizens Potentially Eligible for SSDI and/or SSI? The short answer is that any person legally admitted into the United States who works and pays taxes so as to become insured for Social Security Retirement and SSDI can be eligible to receive SSDI benefits as well as SSI. For non-citizens who have not worked enough to be eligible for Social Security and can only look to SSI, it is a much more complicated matter. As a general proposition, persons who are lawfully admitted to the United States as a resident alien or legal permanent resident on or before August 22, 1996 are potentially eligible for SSI benefits. However, see SSA's information on the subject for exceptions to this general rule, such as by reviewing Supplemental Security Income (SSI) For Noncitizens, SSA Publication No , April 2008, ICN (http://www.socialsecurity.gov/pubs/11051.html ). II. The Definition of Disability, the Impact of Age, Education and Work Experience and the Five-Step Sequential Evaluation Process You need to understand what disability means in a Social Security Disability Insurance or SSI claim. The basic definition of disability for persons who are not statutorily blind is set forth at 20 CFR Section and is the same for both the SSDI and SSI programs: The law defines disability as the inability to do any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be 605

8 expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months. To meet this definition, you must have a severe impairment or combination of impairments that make you unable to do your past relevant work (see section (b)) or any other substantial gainful work that exists in the national economy. A reading of the definition of disability in and of itself is pretty straightforward. If an individual has a physical or mental health problem that prevents him/her from doing any type of work that exists in the United States economy, then that individual should be deemed disabled. However, as with most things in life, it is never that simple. A. Age An individual's age will have a considerable impact upon the SSA's evaluation of the individual's disability claim. This is because the SSA acknowledges that notwithstanding laws designed to eliminate age discrimination in employment, such discrimination as well as other factors may limit an individual's ability to obtain and perform work. Accordingly, the rules change at certain ages when people enter different age categories. For example, a key age for persons who are unable to effectively speak, read and/or write in the English language is 45 years. Key ages for persons who are not illiterate or unable to communicate in English are 50, 55 and 60 years. (See 20 CFR Sections , ). B. Education Education, whether by way of formal schooling, formal vocational training or on-the-job training learned over time is an important factor in evaluation of disability claims. Social Security categorizes educational levels into categories of illiteracy, marginal education (formal schooling at a 6th grade level or less), limited education (7th grade through 11th grade of formal education) and high school education and above. (See 20 CFR Section ). C. Work Experience Past relevant work ( PRW ) is all work done in the 15 years prior to the date the individual claims to have become disabled. Social Security looks to the skills and abilities that the individual acquired through work and training in the past 15 years; if the individual can no longer perform work that s/he has done in the last 15 years, but has skills that could be transferable to lighter work which the individual can still perform on a full time basis, this could defeat a claim for SSDI/SSI. Social Security did promulgate Medical-Vocational Guidelines, often referred to as "the grid rules" which direct findings of disabled or not disabled depending upon an individual's physical limitations (referred to as residual functional capacity), age, education and prior work experience in the last 15 years. Accordingly, an individual who might be able to do some jobs that exist in significant numbers in the United States economy can still be entitled to SSDI and/or SSI benefits if s/he grids out. See 20 CFR,Part 404, Subpart B., Appendix 2, Section and discussion of the 5 step disability evaluation process, below. D. The Five Step Sequential Evaluation Process The 5 step sequential evaluation process of disability claims is set forth at 20 CFR Section A shortened version of the 5 steps is stated as: 606

9 1) Is the individual working at substantial gainful activity levels? 2) Does the individual have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s) which has lasted or is expected to last at least one year or result in death? 3) Does the individual s severe impairment(s) meet or equal a listing for disability? 4) Does the individual have the ability to perform work s/he has done in the past 15 years? 5) If the individual cannot do his/her past work, can s/he make an adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the United States economy? a) Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) SGA is defined at 20 CFR Section SGA means work that involves significant physical or mental activity that is either typically done or usually done for pay or profit, even if the individual is not receiving remuneration for doing such work activity. For example, an accountant who volunteers his time doing accounting or bookkeeping work for an organization without seeking remuneration can be performing SGA. SGA is assigned a valuation in dollars every year. The amount of income from earnings that is deemed SGA in 2012 is $1, per month. SGA is a bottom-line amount. Unless an individual can show that the work being done is not substantial (meaning not worth the money being paid for the work by the payor) or that the individual has impairment related work expenses that would reduce the earnings to below $1,010 per month, [gross] earnings of $1, per month whether from full-time or part-time work activity is going to preclude an individual from being found disabled and entitled to benefits no matter how severe the physical or mental health problems the individual experiences. See, e. g., and 20 CFR Sections b) Severe Impairment An impairment is severe if it has a significant (interpreted as more than a minimal) impact upon an individual's ability to do basic work activity. See 20 CFR Section (c). As a general proposition, almost any significant health problem for which an individual receives treatment is likely to be deemed a severe impairment. In this author's experience, very few Administrative Law Judges decide cases unfavorably at step two because of the strong likelihood of a reversal on appeal because of the liberal treatment of the term "severe impairment." c) The Listings for Disability The listings for disability are contained in Appendix 1 of Subpart P of Part 404, 20 CFR. If an individual is not working at SGA levels and a listing is met, the person is entitled to a finding of disability. Meeting or equaling a listing is like playing Monopoly, passing go and collecting $200. The listings have been described as going to a restaurant and ordering "the special" where you have two items from column A and two items from column B. If all of the medical requirements of a listing are present, the listing is met. Unfortunately, not all health impairments are listed and so it can be important to request that an adjudicator/alj obtain the opinion of a medical expert as to whether an individual's severe impairment(s) is/are individually or in combination functionally equal in severity to a listed impairment. A finding of equivalence cannot be made by an adjudicator at any level without corroboration from an SSA approved medical source [so a client s physician's opinion on 607

10 equivalence is not going to be given controlling weight on this issue]. ( SSR ) 96-6p and 20 CFR Section See Social Security Ruling d) Past Relevant Work (PRW) PRW is all work done in the 15 years before the individual became disabled. The work can be skilled, semi-skilled or unskilled. An individual s age, education, PRW and residual functional capacity will be the operative factors in whether or not the case can be approved by use of the grid rules. If the individual cannot perform his/her past work, but has skills transferable to lighter work, the claimant's disability claim can be denied. e) Are There Any Jobs the Individual Can Perform? Step five is where most cases for persons below age 50 are adjudicated, favorably or unfavorably. This is the step most consistent with the definition of disability at Section If a claimant's physical and/or mental impairments would prevent him/her from working eight hours per day, five days per week at even the simplest, most routine, and physically least demanding jobs, then s/he should be found disabled. See SSRs 85-15, 96-9p. The SSA has the burden of proof to show that there are jobs that an individual can perform despite his or her health related limitations (what the individual is capable of doing physically and/or mentally is the individual's residual functional capacity or RFC ) and typically this is done at hearings through vocational expert testimony by way of hypothetical questions. For example, Assume an individual of the same age, education and work experience of the claimant who is limited to standing two hours in an eight hour day, sitting six hours in an eight hour day, lifting not greater than 10 pounds occasionally and up to 5 pounds frequently throughout the workday, who is only able to remember and complete simple, routine tasks, with not greater than occasional contact with co-workers and supervisors, and has no direct contact with the public. Could such an individual do claimant's past relevant work and, if not, would there be other jobs that can be performed given that residual functional capacity? If the vocational expert's answer is no, a finding of disability should be issued. If the answer is yes, expect a listing of jobs and the numbers in which such jobs exist in the national and regional economies. III. Considerations for Plaintiff's Attorneys 608 A. What type of benefit is your client receiving or potentially going to receive from the Social Security Administration? 1) an individual is already receiving or is potentially eligible to receive SSDI benefits, potential receipt of personal injury case proceeds is not going to have any impact upon the individual's entitlement to continuing benefits. This is because SSDI is not a needs-based program. Simply stated, if you have paid in and are found disabled, you are entitled to collect regardless as to how wealthy you are or generally how much income you have from other sources. The qualifier of "generally" is used because there can be offset of SSDI benefits in certain, limited situations, e.g., where Workers Compensation benefits are received. See 42 USC Section 424a Receipt of Workers Compensation benefits is the leading offset of SSDI benefits. As a disincentive for people to sit back and reap a windfall by collecting Workers Compensation and SSDI at the same time, the rule is that Workers Compensation benefits plus Social Security Disability Insurance benefits combined cannot amount to

11 greater than 80% of what an individual was earning prior to his cessation of work. (Note: annual cost-of-living increases are not subject to the 80% rule after the first year of disability). 2) If an individual is already receiving or potentially eligible to receive SSI benefits, the individual's receipt of the proceeds of a personal injury claim in excess of $2,000 (or $3,000 for a couple) can render an individual financially ineligible for ongoing SSI and Medicaid health insurance benefits for any and all months in which the individual has available to him/her "excess resources. Accordingly, it is wise for the plaintiff's attorney to counsel the plaintiff/claimant of the potential loss of medical insurance and cash benefits prior to settling a claim. While prompt and creative use of settlement or verdict proceeds (such as pre-payment of rent or purchasing a house or an exempt vehicle) can render an individual again eligible for cash and medical benefits in the month after receipt and spend down of settlement or verdict proceeds, attorneys need to be able to recommend that their clients speak with an estate planning attorney to discuss the potential benefits and costs of creating a Medicaid trust, often referred to as a "Special Needs Trust", particularly where there is going to be a very substantial amount of money available to the plaintiff/claimant and such money will not last long if the individual loses health insurance benefits. B. What type of doctors should the plaintiff/claimant see? 1) Preferably good doctors, who are MDs and DOs, whose records do not look like the same empty boilerplate again and again and again. If an individual is significantly impaired, the presence in the medical records of reasonably objective physical findings such as motor strength, muscle atrophy, reflexes, sensation, ranges of motion, presence of muscle spasm and results of other basic clinical testing procedures are extremely helpful to the claimant for SSDI and/or SSI benefits. Remember, SSDI and SSI claims do not utilize live physician testimony; medical records are submitted. Accordingly, if records do not show that a physician is reporting objective findings, the records and thus the opinions of the physician regarding an individual's limitations are going to be afforded less weight by the SSA adjudicator/judge. [FEEL FREE TO POINT THIS OUT TO PHYSICIANS TO WHOM YOU REFER YOUR CLIENTS!!]. 2) Consider whether or not an individual has sustained a closed head injury/traumatic brain injury in the accident for which the individual is being represented. All too frequently, persons with closed head injuries are not being diagnosed early enough to provide for the opportunity to receive proper treatment and therapies. Not only does this lack of evaluation potentially bring down the financial value of the personal injury claim, but it can adversely impact the balance of the individual's life. If the individual did sustain a whiplash injury or otherwise struck his or her head and the individual or persons close to him/her have noticed changes in cognitive ability, changes in personality and changes in moods, do not be shy about referring him or her to him/her to a neuropsychologist for a neuropsychological evaluation! 609

12 3) Under Social Security's regulations, physicians offering opinions that individuals are disabled are not helpful as this is an issue reserved to the Commissioner of Social Security. See 20 CFR Section (e). On the other hand, physicians offering opinions as to physical and/or mental limitations based upon their treatment experience with a patient can be entitled to great weight. 20 CFR Section (d). However, not all treating source opinions are created equally. Acceptable medical sources are: licensed physicians (medical or osteopathic doctors); licensed or certified psychologists including school psychologists (and other licensed or certified individuals with other titles who perform the same function as school psychologists in a school setting) only for purposes of establishing mental retardation, learning disabilities, and borderline intellectual functioning ; licensed optometrists only for purposes of establishing visual disorders (except in the U.S. Virgin Islands where licensed optometrists are acceptable medical sources only for the measurement of visual acuity and visual fields); licensed podiatrists only for purposes of establishing impairments of the foot, or foot and the ankle, depending on whether the State in which the podiatrist practices permits the practice of podiatry on the foot only, or the foot and the ankle; and qualified speech-language pathologists only for purposes of establishing speech or language impairments. For this source, qualified means that the speech-language pathologist must be licensed by the State education agency in the State in which he or she practices, or hold a Certificate of Clinical Competence from the American Speech- Language-Hearing Association. (SOURCE: Disability Evaluation Under Social Security (Blue Book- September 2008) (http://www.socialsecurity.gov/disability/professionals/bluebook/evidentiary.htm) Note that chiropractors are not deemed acceptable medical sources and thus their opinions, like opinions of physical therapists and even nurse practitioners, are not necessarily going to be given much weight by the SSA adjudicator/judge. See Social Security Ruling 06-03p at 01.html IV. Considerations for Defense Attorneys As this is the final part of these materials, it is appropriate that it is the easiest. Defense attorneys contact Social Security Disability-SSI representatives seeking copies of medical records and other documentation from claimants Social Security files. It is this author's position that all medical records and other documentation from the Social Security file are confidential, privileged and subject to the federal Privacy Act of 1974 and can only be disclosed to a party other than the SSA by the representative if the representative is provided with a HIPAA compliant authorization signed by the claimant specifically allowing for release of all records of mental and physical impairments and all other documentation submitted to and generated by the Social Security Administration in connection with the individual's disability claim. See, e.g., Form SSA-827 (page 2 of 2) appended to these materials. 610

13 Hypotheticals - SSD and SSI Claims 611

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15 SSD and SSI Claims Sanjuanita González, Esquire HYPOTHETICAL 1 You represent Roberto Martinez, a 47 year old Spanish speaking man who sustained severe personal injuries, when he was rear ended by a pick up truck driven by Max Smith. Although you took Spanish in high school, somehow it has been difficult to communicate with your client, and you have been relying on your receptionist who speaks some Spanish to communicate with Roberto. Up until the time of the accident, Roberto had been working cleaning auto parts at ABC Auto Parts, a local company. He had been working there for about 5 months and was earning $400 per week without overtime; and about $600 per week with overtime. Roberto was well regarded at his job and he sensed that he was going to be promoted and receive a higher base salary. When the accident occurred, Roberto was transported via ambulance to the ER at Albert Einstein Medical Center and was admitted with multiple fractures to his legs. While at Albert Einstein, he underwent numerous surgeries and was released from the hospital with a cast on each leg. For the first 6 weeks following his release, Roberto was transported in a wheelchair. After his casts were removed, he used crutches, a walker and was finally able to walk slowly with the use of a cane. Roberto is supporting himself with Social Security Disability benefits. Although there is no question about liability in this case, the carrier for the defendant driver has not made a meaningful offer. You filed a Complaint in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas and one of the major local law firms is representing Max Smith. During Roberto s deposition, being conducted with the assistance of a Spanish/English interpreter provided by the defense attorney, he revealed that prior to and while he was working at ABC auto parts, he was receiving Social Security Disability benefits. Roberto insists that he called the Social Security Administration s number and reported that he had started working. His disability benefits continued even after he reported his earnings and while he was working up to the present time and he thought he was entitled to them. You are on the eve of trial and the defense attorney has filed a Motion in Limine asking that Roberto be prohibited from introducing any evidence of lost wages in light of the obvious perpetration of fraud against the United States government and all taxpayers who fund the Social Security system. The defense attorney has further told you that he intends to contact the Inspector General s Office to request that Roberto be investigated for defrauding the government. Roberto is getting very nervous and does not want to get into trouble. He wants you to drop the case. You are in a daze. How did this straight forward, clear liability case become such a nightmare; and why didn t your client tell you that he had been receiving SS disability 613

16 benefits while he was working? You have contacted the Social Security Administration at the phone number advertised to provide world class service and no one will talk to you about Roberto s case until you file SS form What should you do? 614

17 HYPOTHETICAL 2 Mary Martin is your client. She suffered a back injury when she slipped and fell at the local supermarket while grocery shopping. Although she went to the ER on the day of her fall, she did not seek treatment until three weeks later. She tells you the reason why she had no treatment during that time was a lack of insurance. Mary was not working at the time of her injury. She is 38 years old and is unemployed. She has been receiving Social Security disability benefits for 2 years. She is getting $500 per month on Social Security disability and $198 per month on SSI disability benefits. She tells you that her disability is based on depression and anxiety since the sudden death of her husband who suffered a heart attack 3 years ago. Prior to that, she worked as a sewing machine operator and she was just thinking of going back to work because she was feeling better. However, this injury will not allow her to go back to work. You have filed a Complaint on behalf of Mary in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. During discovery, Mary signs releases for the defense attorney to obtain her medical records and her file from the Social Security Administration. During her deposition, Mary testifies that she has never had any problems with her back. She reiterates that she was approved for SSD and SSI disability benefits based on her emotional state following her husband s death. The defense attorney produces a Disability Report signed by Mary from the Social Security Administration in which it is reported that she cannot work for the following reasons: My back and neck hurt and I cannot stand and walk for too long. When I sit, I have to constantly change positions. I feel depressed because I cannot do the things I used to do. Also, my husband died and I now have anxiety. A Function Report signed by Mary states that sometimes, she has to lay down several hours a day to get any relief from her back pain. There is also a report of a doctor who examined Mary regarding her disability claim and noted her complaints of severe back and neck pain. Confronted with this information, Mary says she did not complete the disability forms. Her niece completed them for her because her reading and writing are not very good. You are somewhat perplexed because Mary showed you the Administrative Law Judge s decision from the Social Security Administration which clearly showed that she was disabled because of depression and anxiety. After consulting with Mary, you are now considering accepting the $10,000 offer which you initially thought was laughable. Mary has told you that she will accept it so long as it does not affect her medical coverage because she has to take medicine every day. Also, she wants to be sure that her 17 year old son s SSI benefits are not affected. How do you advise her? 615

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